African American Perspectives on the Civil War: A Study from Georgia

The period 2011 through 2015, commonly referred to as the “Civil War Sesquicentennial” or “Civil War 150”, marks the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, a watershed in American history. Throughout the country, national parks, battlefields, and other National Park Service (NPS) sites will offer interpretations of Civil War activity and reflect upon the theme “From the Civil War to Civil Rights,” an idea that requires specific recognition of the change in attitudes of groups impacted by the war over time.

In Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, Robert Cook asserts, “…race was a principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War.”

Given the intersection of the centennial commemoration of the Civil War with the Civil Rights movement, the emancipationist narrative became lost in the pageantry of the Lost Cause and in segregationists’ attempts to link the glory of the past with the then present. This is evident in the multitudinous memorials and statues that commemorate the role of Confederate forces on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, Shiloh in Tennessee, Vicksburg in Mississippi, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial aims to address these issues of the past and to provide a means of ensuring that all histories are adequately represented for modern public audiences.

So begins the introduction to a report from the National Park Service, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University. That report, titled Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War; The War of Jubilee – Tell Our Story and We Will Come, offers a fascinating and thoughtful look at how African Americans view the Civil War, and also, the public spaces that commemorate the war. The report was issued in January 2011.

The study was prompted by the acknowledgement that in the past, the full story of the Civil War – specifically, the story of African Americans during the war – has been marginalized or even ignored by “public spaces,” such as national parks, battlefield sites, and museums. As a step toward developing programs – including tours, site markers, presentations, and printed materials – that reflect the full history of the Civil War, the staff at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) in the Atlanta area conducted research to assess African American views toward the War, and the Park. KEMO partnered with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University to conduct the research.

{The Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is located in Cobb County, Georgia, which is in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. The Park area was the site of heavy fighting between Union forces led by Major General William T. Sherman, during his Atlanta Campaign, and Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston. KEMO is operated by the National Park Service.}

The study was conducted by holding several focus group discussions with African American organizations and groups in the Atlanta area. Comments from those group discussions are included in the study, and make for very interesting reading.

The research project developed a number of findings:

An analysis of the audio-recorded focus group sessions demonstrates varying levels of skepticism and optimism among respondents regarding the Civil War museum interpretations at Kennesaw Mountain National Battleffield Park and other historical sites. Initial skepticism about KEMO and NPS’s willingness to expand its interpretation is compounded by a suspicion of the nature of that historical interpretation. While the different groups demonstrated a strong desire to know more about the African American experience during the Civil War, there were strong feelings amongst the participants that the history of African Americans and the Civil War will continue to be misinterpreted in the South.

The predominance of the Southern Civil War “Lost Cause” narrative presented a second area of concern. The groups suggested that the Civil War, as it is taught in the South, offers a one-dimensional look at African Americans and reduces the conflict’s complexities to a “memorial” of a distant and better time.

Participants remarked that African Americans are largely written about as passive spectators, i.e. slaves, if they figure at all in the official Southern histories. This enervating representation frustrated most participants and angered several within the groups. One college-educated participant felt outraged that he had no knowledge of the USCT or his own family history of participation in the war until he heard an elderly relative reference that “Grandpa Ed with big sticks in the big war” – the Civil War. Another participant shared the story of a “great-great grandfather who drove wagons for Sherman.”

Many of the participants felt that the implementation of a potentially new interpretation inclusive of the African Americans experience would elicit controversy about the legitimacy of such a “new” interpretation by the white public.

There was also concern of backlash from traditional, white Southerners that may lead to confrontation with African American visitors at KEMO and in other places. Participants across the groups stated that KEMO should implement strategies to make African Americans feel safe and welcome at the battlefield.

However, many individuals also expressed hope that a more accurate view of history could emerge if historians would move beyond traditional viewpoints and methodologies to capture stories told within African American families, churches, and social organizations. It was suggested that Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park include micro-histories (versus macro-histories) of individuals and families in specific georgraphic locations within Cobb County.

Still others used the focus groups as a forum to relate significant African American Civil War efforts. As the participants shared family memories and accounts of war activity, each of them reinforced the belief that their history exists and that it needs to be gathered piecemeal from their families and kinship networks.

The full report can be found here. Be aware, the report is large and can take a while to download on slower Internet connections. It is in PDF format.

Thanks to Yulanda Burgess of the “United States Colored Troops Brigade” Yahoo discussion group, who brought this to the attention of the group. An invitation has been extended to Hermina Glass-Avery, the Associate Director for The Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at the Kennesaw State University, to join the discussion group to see or respond to comments about the report; those who are interested might want to browse the group’s discussion forum to see if any threads open on this subject. Ms. Glass-Avery was the principal investigator and lead facilitator for the study, and prepared the report.

Did you know?: The National Park Service has adopted “From the Civil War to Civil Rights” as a theme of the 150th commemoration of the Civil War.


One thought on “African American Perspectives on the Civil War: A Study from Georgia

  1. My name is Charles Harris I portray a Sergeant in the 22nd USCT Co.A. I’ve been involved in this preservation of African American history now for over 10 years.The Truth about the Civil War must be told as it relates to African Americans. Our crucial role and participation must be included in any commemoration of the 150th.Wherever we are we must tell our story. Also anyone black or white who values the truth has an obligation to do likewise.I recently discovered after many years of searching that my great-grandfather William Green probably served with the 25th USCT Co.H I owe it to Him and the other 225,000 Men of color and their 7,000 white officers who fought and died to end slavery and restore the Union. They were truly patriots.

    Sergeant Charles Harris
    22nd United States Colored Troops

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